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Thursday, May 29, 2014

Religion and Foreign Policy

There was a time when diplomats didn't think religion mattered. There was a time when former Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, was known to say, "Let's not bring God and religion into it." This attitude was partly due to the widely held view of social scientists that religion was on its way out. But, while there are a few who, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, still hold fast to the belief that the world is becoming increasingly secularized, the rest of the world has come to realize that religion isn't going away any time soon (in fact, most cognitive scientists would argue that it isn't going away ever). Even Madeline Albright has changed her tune:
In order to effectively conduct foreign policy today, you have to understand the role of God and religion ... My sense is that we don't fully understand, because one, it's pretty complicated, and two, everyone in the U.S. believes in a separation of church and state, so you think, "Well, if we don't believe in the convergence of church and state, then perhaps we shouldn't worry about the role of religion." I think we do that now at our own peril. Religion is instrumental in shaping ideas and policies. It's an essential part of everyday life in a whole host of countries. And obviously it plays a role in how these countries behave, so we need to know what the religious influence is.
The interaction of religion and foreign policy is the subject of the recent Research on Religion podcast ("David Smith on Religion, International Relations, and Foreign Policy"). It features Professor David Smith, who teaches at the University of Sydney. Smith argues that the "divorce" of religion from foreign policy can be traced back to the Peace of Westphalia, which marked the end of the Thirty Year's War. He believes it took the religious question off the table in terms of interstate conflict and diplomacy and why until recently religion has never been taken seriously by students (and practitioners) of international relations and foreign policy.

The podcast is an interesting discussion on how religion does (or might) play a role in international relations. It covers topics such as human rights, the creation of the International Religious Freedom Act, the terrorist group, Boko Haram, and how U.S. evangelicals approach climate policy domestically and abroad. It can be downloaded from iTunes or you can listen to it at the Research on Religion website ("David Smith on Religion, International Relations, and Foreign Policy").

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Document that Transformed the Chinese Economy

Here's an interesting story that was recently (re)played on NPR's Planet Money podcast ("The Secret Document That Transformed China"). It tells the story of a group of farmers who, in 1978, wrote a secret contract and hid it in the roof of a mud hut. They were afraid it might get them executed because it advocated private property and the pursuit of profit. However, they were starving and desperate, so they took a chance, and in the end, the contract transformed the Chinese economy from one that focused on the good of the collective to one that embraced individual initiative. The irony, of course, is that by incentivizing individuals to make a profit, it ended up benefiting the wider community, and one of the primary reasons why China's economy is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. It's worth a listen to.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Witness to the Amish

The movie Witness, which starred Harrison Ford and was set amid the Amish in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, has been held up as one of the few movies (if the only one) that provides an accurate and sympathetic portrait of the Amish. In addition, it almost certainly contributed to the American public's fascination with the Amish. In fact, tourism is Lancaster County's number one industry, and most tourists come to see the Amish.

It turns out that much of the conventional wisdom surrounding the Amish are urban myths. For instance, many use electricity, Amish kids aren't "turned loose" when they reach 16, and the actors in the Amish Mafia are not actually Amish (there's a surprise). These topics and more are the subject of a recent Research on Religion podcast ("Donald Kraybill on The Amish and Old Order Mennonites"), which features sociologist Don Kraybill, probably the foremost Amish scholar. Here's a brief description of the podcast:
One of the most distinctive and recognizable Christian groups in the United States are the Amish. But how much do we really know about this group? Prof. Don Kraybill, a noted scholar on Old Order Mennonites and Anabaptists, provides us with a historical background of the Amish and the related “horse and buggy” Mennonites. We also discuss their theology, ethnic/cultural practices, demographics, and economics. Along the way, we explode many of the myths and stereotypes in this wonderfully comprehensive interview.
The podcast can be downloaded from iTunes or you can listen to it at the Research on Religion website ("Donald Kraybill on The Amish and Old Order Mennonites").

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Puig's Strike Zone Get's Smaller

Recently I wrote that Dodger right fielder Yasiel Puig could repeat his rookie performance if he cuts down on his strikeouts ("Can Puig Do It Again?"). He was striking out 25 percent of the time, which is probably too high of a rate to hit over .300 for a season. It appears that Puig is demonstrating more discipline at the plate, which usually turns into fewer strikeouts and more hits. According to CBSSports ("It's Time to Start Thinking of Yasiel Puig as a Smart Hitter") Puig is swinging at fewer balls outside of the strike zone (down from 38.3 percent last year to 21.9 percent this year). So far, this has only translated into a slight drop in his strikeout percentage (22.89 percent), but he's walking more, which as Billy Beane figured out some time ago, is just as important as hits. All of this translates to good news for Puig. He should be fun to watch over the years. I just wish he wasn't playing for the Dodgers...

Friday, May 23, 2014

Are Stradivarius Violins Really That Good?

A 1731 Stradivarius violin, known as "The Kreutzer," which is named after the French concert violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer who once owned it, could sell for as much as $10 million in an auction next month ("Stradivarius violin owned by reclusive U.S. heiress could sell for $10 million"). The violin is one of the items on sale from the estate of Huguette Clark, who died in 2011 at the age of 104. After she died, the violin was found in a closet where it evidently had been stored for the previous 25 years. To date, the highest price paid for a Stradivarius violin is $16 million, so if "The Kreutzer" sells for $10 million, it won't break a record. However, another Stradivarius (this time, a viola) made in 1719 will be auctioned by Sotheby's in June, and it's valued at $45 million, which if it isn't a record, it's gotta be pretty close.

But are Stradivarius's really worth that much? Are they really that good? If you ask a professional violinist, most will say yes. However, several "blind" tests dating as far back to the 19th century suggest that it just isn't so, which makes one wonder how much of the Stradivarius appeal is about how they sound and how much it's about the brand. Put differently, are our brains priming us to believe that the sound is beautiful simply because it's a Stradivarius?

In 2010, a group of researchers decided to find out. They gathered a group of musicians in a hotel room and had them play a mix of new and old violins, including two made by Stradivari. The musicians played the violins while wearing welding goggles, so they couldn't tell which instrument they were holding. And when the researchers totaled up the results, there was no evidence the players could reliably pick which ones were made by Stradivari and which ones weren't. Moreover, when they were asked to pick their favorite, the winner wasn't a Stradivarius. It was a recently made violin.

Needless to say, this study's results were extremely controversial. One violinist reportedly remarked that the test was like comparing a Ford and a Ferrari in a Walmart parking lot. So the researchers repeated the experiment with more violins, better players, and in a concert hall, and the results were essentially the same. The players could not tell old from new or the Stradivarius violins from the new ones.

Unsurprisingly, many professional violinists, at least those who own or would like to own a Stradivarius, were unconvinced by the results. But studies of other "fine" goods, such as wine ("Do Expensive Wines Really Taste Better?"), have uncovered similar results, suggesting that we often (probably more often than we'd like to admit) think something's wonderful simply because we expect it to be wonderful.

All this is the subject of a recent NPR Planet Money podcast ("Is A Stradivarius Just A Violin?"), which you can download from iTunes or listen to at the Planet Money website. Just click on the link above.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

It's True: Money Can't Buy Us Love (But Our Social Networks Can)

Remember the lyrics to the old Beatles' hit:

"I'll buy you a diamond ring my friend if it makes you feel alright."
"I'll get you anything my friend if it makes you feel alright."
"Cos I don't care too much for money; money can't buy me love."

"I'll give you all I got to give if you say you'll love me too."
"I may not have a lot to give but what I got I'll give to you."
"I don't care too much for money, money can't buy me love."

"Can't buy me love, everybody tells me so; can't buy me love, no no no, no"

It turns out, they were right (although I'm not sure they really believed it). Money can't buy us love. It can't buy us happiness, either. A study conducted by the economist, Richard Easterlin, compared income (adjusted for inflation) with subjective well being (SWB) from 1946 to 1989 and found that although income rose fairly constantly over that period of time, subjective well being did not. In fact SWB actually declined slightly (see the Figure below, which reproduces Figure 10.1 in, "Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect"). A similar correlation (or lack thereof, actually) has been found in several countries, perhaps the most dramatic in Japan where over roughly the same period of time, income rose over 500 percent but SWB remained unchanged.

Why? I'm going to return to this question in a future post, but the short answer is this: social ties. Economists have identified a number of factors that contribute to subjective well being, but the one that appears to matters the most is social ties. The more we have, at least up to a point, the happier we are. People who are married are, in general, happier than those who are not. People who regularly see close friends, whether it's walking around a track or sipping beers at a pub, are generally happier than those who do not. People who volunteer, who as a consequence regularly interact with others, are happier than those who do not. And so on. Unfortunately, there's increasing evidence that we are becoming increasingly isolated, which would explain why SWB has been declining. Why that is so, however, is a topic for another day.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Flash Boys

Front running ("Front Running") is the practice of stockbrokers buying and/or selling securities when they take advantage of advance knowledge from customers' pending orders. Front running brokers either buy a stock before filling their customers' orders, which will drive up the price of the stock, or they sell a stock before they execute their customer sell orders, which will drive down the price of the stock.

For example, suppose a broker receives an order from a customer to buy 100,000 shares of Microsoft, but before placing the order, the broker buys 20,000 shares of Microsoft for herself at $100 per share, which has the effect of driving the price up to $102. Then the broker immediately sells her shares (to her customer) at the new price, generating a profit of $40,000 for herself and causing her customer to pay more for the stock if she hadn't front runned.

This practice is generally illegal, but in the world of high frequency trading (HFT), it is not. By acquiring high-speed access to many of the world's stock exchanges, high frequency traders learn (well, their computers learn) before others when major purchases and sales of stocks are about to occur, which allows them to front run and make a quick profit. All of this occurs in a flash, literally quicker than it takes someone to blink their eyes, and the profits on each transaction are small, but when high frequency traders do this thousands, perhaps millions, of times a day. The profits can be enormous, at least for the traders, and it's the rest of us, including our pension plans, who pay the costs by making less than we otherwise would have.

All this is the subject of Michael Lewis's new book, "Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt." It not only explores the intricacies of HFT, but it also tells the story of a handful Wall Street brokers who band together to reform the financial markets. They do this by creating an exchange in which HFT has no advantage whatsoever. It's a great read (well, I've been listening to it).

Friday, May 16, 2014

Religion and Transitional Justice in Postcommunist Countries

Okay. Not the most scintillating title, but according to a study by Santa Clara University professor Peter Rožič published in the Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies ("Religion Matters: Quantifying the Impact of Religious Legacies on Post-Communist Transitional Justice"), postcommunist countries with Protestant and Catholic heritages are more likely to enact policies and practices of transitional justice in the move to democracy than those nations with Islamic and Eastern Orthodox backgrounds. 

Rožič analyzed 34 postcommunist countries and and their policies and laws limiting the political participation of former authoritarian leaders and other officials (known as lustration) and found that countries with Protestant and Catholic histories not only lead in enacting such laws of transitional justice but have on average also increased the intensity of their lustration practices. The opposite turned out to be true in countries with mainly Muslim and Eastern Orthodox legacies. All of this is captured in the graph above, which plots the lustration index over the last 20 years, broken into countries with Muslim, Orthodox, or Catholic/Protestant heritages.

In case you're wondering, Rožič took into account (i.e., he controlled for) other factors that could lead to such differing outcomes, such as the type, duration, and the degree of bureaucratization of the communist regimes. He ended up concluding that the church-state postures of these various traditions and the degree of actual complicity between religious officials with communist regimes might be the ultimate factors behind his findings.

Note: This summary of Rožič's article is adapted from the May 2014 issue of Religion Watch (p. 6).

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Elements of Academic Style

Someone has remarked that when writing an essay, article, book, etc., the most important points should be written in short, declarative statements. Strunk and White, in their classic book on writing well, The Elements of Style, make a similar point:
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that he make every word tell.
Now, consider the following sentence written by the late French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, in his classic book, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste:
Likewise, the style of the book, whose long, complex sentences may offend— constructed as they are with a view to reconstituting the complexity of the social world in a language capable of holding together the most diverse things while setting them in rigorous perspective— stems partly from the endeavour to mobilize all the resources of the traditional modes of expression, literary, philosophical or scientific, so as to say things that were de facto or de jure excluded from them, and to prevent the reading from slipping back into the simplicities of the smart essay or the political polemic.
Although sentences such as this abound in his book, and this one is rather tame compared to what comes later, Bourdieu analysis of high culture has become an instant classic. Some, in fact, argue that it's the sociological text of the 20th century. Nevertheless, since very few have the patience and only academics have the time to soldier through his awkwardly-constructed sentences, one has to wonder whether he wrote to enlighten or for distinction.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Trends in World Religions: More, not Less

Recently, the political scientists Zeev Maoz and Errol Henderson, drawing a wide array of available data, compiled a world religion dataset, which counts the number of religious adherents by nation state from 1945 to 2010 for 14 major world religions. They also broke the counts down by religious families within the major religions (e.g., Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Anglican). Their data are available at the Association of Religion Data Archives (aka, the ARDA) ("World Religion Dataset") where you can find a description of how the data were collected and coded. A more complete summary of the data can be found in Maoz and Henderson' article, "The World Religion Dataset, 1945-2010," where they also discus some of the limitations of the data.

While there's no point in rehashing their entire article, a couple of interesting things did jump out from the paper. These are captured in the figure below, which plots the percentage of the major world religions over time.

The jump in the percentage of religious adherents from 1945 to 1950 primarily reflects the fact that a significant portion (30%) of the world's population did not live in nation states in 1945 whereas by 2010, more than 98% did. However, as Maoz and Henderson note, 
Since the mid-1970s, the changes in the size of the international system were relatively marginal, and these changes reflect more rearrangement of the system (secessions and partitions of multiethnic entities... So that at least some of the increase in religiosity reflects an actual trend rather than a combination of statistical artifacts (p. 279).
This is captured, in part, by the yellow bar, which measures the percentage of the non-religious population. It indicates that the percentage of non-religious reached a peak in 1980 (16.7%) and has been in decline ever since. Some of this decline reflects the collapse of Communism, which "led many people who had declared atheism in the Communist world to now reclaim their religious identity" (p. 280). Moreover, as I've noted elsewhere ("How Religion Benefits Everyone, Even Nonbelievers"), a large portion of the religiously unaffiliated are quite religious.

A couple of other trends are worth noting. One is that Christianity (blue bar in the figure above) remains the largest religion in the world, accounting for slightly over 30% of the world’s population, a proportion that has remained relatively stable since 1945. Another is that Islam has been growing rapidly (green bar in the figure above) and now accounts for about 22% of the world's population. Hinduism and Buddhism have also experienced some growth. Hinduism's growth has been relatively modest, but the proportion of Buddhists has almost doubled, from 4% in 1950 to 7% in 2010. Interestingly, however, the rest of the world's major religions have experienced decline with Judaism shrinking the most from 0.5% of the world’s population in 1950 to 0.2% in 2010.